In 1957, artist Richard Hamilton wrote a letter to his friends. In it, he described pop art as “Young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, big business… [and] just the beginning”. How right he was! Since then, pop art has ballooned into one of the most influential and collectible art movements this side of the twentieth century.
When one thinks of the term, tri-toned Marilyn Monroes, framed soup cans and comic-book strips on canvas swim to mind. What is perhaps lesser known however, is pop art’s life Down Under. Inspired by both the United States and Europe, Australian artists forged their own distinct take on pop. Today, this legacy persists through artists like Steve Rosendale, Philippe Le Miere, Eddie Botha, Rona Green, Jasper Knight, Adam Cullen and Alan Delon.
What is Pop Art?
Pop art emerged as a revolt against what art ‘ought’ to be. Young artists felt that the imagery being exhibited and taught to them failed to express their lives; lives which by the 1960s were inextricable from popular culture. Thus, these artists turned away from the Modernist canon and towards the glittering lights of celebrity, advertising and consumerism – irrevocably puncturing the barrier between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture.
The poster boy for pop art was Andy Warhol. In a way rarely seen, Warhol transcended the art world to celebrity status. He partied alongside the stars he depicted, setting the tone for pop art’s tendency to both endorse and question the culture it explored. Is a screen print of a Coke can an ad, or a critique? Pop art suggests it can be both.
Andy Warhol at the famed Studio 54 with Jerry Hall.
Unlike most art genres, pop art is unbound by a medium. While Warhol worked predominantly with screen printing, contemporary artist Jeff Koons is a sculptor, Barbara Kruger engages text and photography, and Keith Haring worked alfresco. Indeed, what can better be understood as the link between these artists is their attitude. Irreverent, tongue-in-cheek and delectably digestible, pop art is the thinking woman’s bubblegum. It is self-aware yet unapologetic: the first iteration of conceptual art and claimed by some as a blow to art.
In 1982, the National Gallery of Victoria hosted an exhibition called ‘Popism’. It was curated by twenty-four year old Paul Taylor, a critic with an appetite for provocation. The exhibition featured twelve Australian artists, including Imants Tillers, Tsk Tsk Tsk and Jenny Watson.
‘Popism’ challenged the institution and broader public, encouraging both to meet each other halfway. It resisted uniformity, taking from the image pool of ordinary life and making something wacky, young and pop-y. On the nuanced relationship between this exhibition and pop art at large, Taylor wrote;
“Labelled as a movement in art, pop easily becomes orthodox. As a type of art, pop is always with us."
In 2014, the Art Gallery of New South Wales revived Taylor’s vision for their exhibition ‘From Pop to Popism’. Here, placed among Warhol, Roy Lichstenstein and David Hockney were a suite of Australian artists, including Richard Larter and Brett Whiteley. Ideas initiated abroad came to roost in Australia, finding their own unique akubra-donning inflection.
The legacy of pop art lies with its ability to democratize. It connected a non-art expert audience with imagery they could not only understand and enjoy, but relate to. For some critics, this represented a dilution of art’s aims. For pop artists however, to engage with popular culture is to engage with the culture of contemporary life, where society gathers to revel in, critique and resist mass media. Their work represented the beginnings of postmodernism, an embrace of irony and the widening of what constitutes fine art. Art became, as Warhol declared, “what you could get away with”.